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Chapter 3 3Plainchant Alleluia, “Caro mea”
Composed: ca. 1275

This brief chant is from the Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi. It is a responsorial chant in which a chorus “responds” to a solo singer. As is so often the case with medieval plainchant, we do not know the identity of the composer, though it was probably written by a monk or priest. This chapter’s recording, by an all-male ensemble, reflects the way this chant would have been sung in a medieval monastery.

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Learning Objectives
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3.1Describe how the Alleluia functioned in the context of the Mass.

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3.2Define responsorial chant.

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3.3Identify the unison texture of plainchant as it is heard in “Caro mea” from the Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi.

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3.4Explain the use of contrast in the performance of “Caro mea.”

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3.5Define melisma and identify melismas in “Caro mea.”

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3.6Describe how plainchant assists in promoting calm and well-being.

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Plainchant was an integral part of every service of worship in the Medieval church. The Alleluia “Caro mea” is one of many plainchants used during the Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for “Body of Christ”), which celebrates the Holy Sacrament, the body (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ. Like all Masses, the Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi consists of a combination of elements that are unchanging (the “Ordinary”—the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) and elements that change according to the specific Sunday or feast day (the “Propers”—Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion). The texts for the Propers of the Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi all deal in some way with the ritual of the Holy Sacrament.

The text for the Alleluia for this feast day is taken from the Gospel of John, 6:55–56. These are the words Jesus spoke to his disciples and others at the synagogue at Caprenaum, and they foreshadow the words he would say at the Last Supper the night before his crucifixion, when he distributed bread and wine to his disciples as part of the traditional Passover meal.

 

A priest (center) leads the celebration of Mass with the assistance of monks (left), who are singing from a notated manuscript.

PERFORMANCE
Chilling to Chant
Plainchant has long been recognized as an element that enhances meditation, prayer, and devotion: It figures prominently in many of the world’s religions (see Expand Your Playlist: Chant, Chapter 1). The gentle flow of the melodies, the absence of repetitive rhythms, and the relatively narrow range of timbre all help create a sense of calm and well-being. Scientists are gradually discovering that there is a physiological factor at work here as well. Dr. Alan Watkins, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, has noted that “the musical structure of chanting can have a significant and positive physiological impact . . . studies also demonstrate that such practices have been shown to lower blood pressure, increase levels of the performance hormone DHEA as well as reducing anxiety and depression.”

 

The monks of the Stift Heiligenkreuz, near Vienna, Austria, are among those who have made recent recordings of Gregorian chant.

Exploring Alleluia “Caro mea”
First, listen to the Alleluia “Caro mea,” using the following prompts as a guide. Then read the discussion of how the elements of music operate in this plainchant.

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Timbre: Listen for the contrast between the soloist (a single voice) and the chorus (many voices, all singing in unison).

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Texture: Listen for the monophonic texture throughout. No matter how many voices are singing, there is never more than one melodic line.

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Melody: Listen for sections of the melody that repeat or return over the course of the entire chant.

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Word-Music Relationships: Listen for the difference between syllables that are sung to a single note and those that are sung to many notes.

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♫ Listen to This First

Plainchant Alleluia, “Caro mea”

Timbre: Soloist and Chorus
This Alleluia is a responsorial chant, one that alternates between a soloist and chorus. The soloist intones the opening word (“Alleluia”), and the chorus “responds” by repeating both the words and music of what the soloist has just sung. The soloist then sings the two biblical verses, and when he has finished, the chorus closes the chant by repeating the word “Alleluia” to the original music once again. This kind of call-and-response format is found in the music of many religions throughout the world.

Texture: Monophony
Listen for the monophonic texture throughout. No matter how many voices are singing, there is never more than one melodic line. The chorus of men’s voices sings in unison—exactly the same notes—throughout.

Melody
The melody throughout has a “floating” quality that projects well across the large spaces of a church. The music to the opening word, “Alleluia” (labeled “A” in the Listening Guide), is sung four times: first by the soloist, then immediately after by the chorus, then toward the end by the soloist (to different words), and finally (once again on the word “Alleluia”) by the chorus. The middle portion of this chant is given to the two biblical verses that transmit Christ’s words. This is a melodically contrasting section (labeled “B” in the Listening Guide).

Word–Music Relationships: Singing Syllables
Even though the words may be the same, reciting a text and singing it are two very different things. Singing lengthens and extends each syllable and allows the singer to project the words over a much larger space. By singing many notes to one syllable—a melisma—a singer can further embellish and emphasize the words to heighten their expression. The word “Alleluia,” for example, when spoken, lasts only a second or two. When sung with extended melismas, as it is here, it can run to almost half a minute.

The register of the melody can also set into relief key words of the text. Listen to how the melody reaches its highest point at the words sanguis meus vere est potus (“and my blood is drink indeed”). The long descent to meam carnem (“my flesh”) helps these key words stand out as well.

While the text and music of the Alleluia section of the Mass change throughout the year, they always begin and end with the word “Alleluia,” and the melodies on the final syllable “-a” are often quite elaborate, reflecting the joyous and even ecstatic nature of the word. (The same word would inspire Handel many centuries later when he wrote the “Halleluiah Chorus” for Messiah—see Chapter 21).

Expand, Connect, and Review: Alleluia “Caro mea”
Expand Your Playlist
The Plainchant Mass
As you listen to more recordings of plainchant, you will begin to hear a tremendous variety in the performances. The size of the ensemble, tempo, phrasing, and the quality of the singing can all vary widely. Here are some examples of various plainchant Masses available on CD and/or mp3.

Mass for Christmas Day
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Christmas Chants (Jade 35668). Choir of The Monks of Montserrat Abbey. The monks of this Benedictine Abbey, near Barcelona, Spain, have made many chant recordings.

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Mass for Easter
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Easter (Paraclete S822). Saint Pierre de Solesmes Monks’ Choir. Solesmes, in northern France, has long been a center for the study and practice of plainchant.

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Mass for the Dedication of a Church
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Heavenly Voices (DG 000289 477 7526 3). Monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Münsterschwarzach. In the Middle Ages, the choir of each church would sing this Mass not only at the dedication of the sanctuary, but on the anniversary of that date every year as well.

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Selections from Various Masses
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Chant (EMI Classics 55138). The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. The best-selling recording of plainchant ever issued: the CD version (1994) went triple-platinum in the United States and sold six million copies worldwide.

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Connect Your Playlist
Call-and-Response
The Isley Brothers, “(You Make Me Wanna) Shout” (1959). This song features a lead singer who “calls” and then receives a “response” from the chorus and/or audience.To continue with the answer check on mycoursewriter.com/

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